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Monday, 24 August 2009

Does Israel need American consent to attack Iran?

Does Israel need American consent to attack Iran? I read this morning a report by the Associated Press that Newsweek was highlighting. Nothing to write home about: the piece is mostly a rehash of things we know already about Israeli concerns, American worries, tactical constraints, timeframes, and the danger of Iranian retaliation. One short paragraph in this article, though, is worthy of discussion: "it's unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States," opines the writer, Steven Gutkin, without telling the reader whether this is his assessment, something he heard from experts, from officials, or from Israeli political leaders. The difference in source can be very significant: as far as I know, no Israeli belonging to the small group of decision-makers that rule on Israel's Iran policy has committed or is likely to commit to saying Israel will only act under American "approval."

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first (which people tend to sometimes forget, particularly with all the accusations of dual loyalty and dark complicity currently flying about), is that Israel is an independent country. It does not take orders from the U.S. Case in point: its attack of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, an act of war condemned by the Reagan administration. But the second and more important reason for Israeli leaders to maintain their independence on this matter is practical: Israelis suspect that the threat of a unilateral attack is the only way for Israel to keep the military option on the table.

The article gets at least this part right:

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they do not wish to appear at odds with their most important ally, said they were concerned about a possible softening of the U.S. stance toward Iran.

If Israel declares that it will only act with the permission of the U.S., it basically gives up on the one chip it has in its arsenal--a chip is badly needed to make both the U.S. and the international community more aware of the implications of diplomatic failure with Iran.

That's why I suspect that Gutkin's claim is not well-founded. (If I were wrong, the headline almost certainly should have been: Israelis say they will only attack Iran with U.S. permission). Maybe what the writer was trying to say is that operating without American consent will be much more complicated for Israel, virtually impossible even. Remember your geography: the shortest way for an Israeli airplane to reach Iran is to travel over Iraq - namely, over an area controlled by U.S. forces. This means that choosing such a route will have to include a U.S.-Israel understanding.

But this is totally different from saying that Israel will not carry out an attack without approval. And it is part of the general confusion of many of the people writing about the feasibility of an Israeli attack. The tactical considerations--whether Israel can do it - are one topic to consider. Israel will not act if it can't do it operationally. However, prior to these important questions of operability, there's the question of intention: If Israel can do it - will it?

On this question, the assumption that Israel has already decided that U.S. reluctance will be the decisive factor against action is problematic. If one wants to make such an assertion, he should consider statements, facts, precedence, and logic. In this case all point in the opposite direction.